Finally, Baie-des-Chaleurs! (Travel letter No. 3)
The morning air tingles my nose. As soon as I wake up, I imagine thousands of microscopic fish swimming up to my pillow. A stone’s throw from the water, in the bay of Carleton-sur-Mer, a mermaid sits on a weather-worn log. She is smoothing out her lapis-lazuli coloured scales. Smiling and friendly, her long regal arms push a trawler out to sea.
I left Sainte-Flavie with tears in my eyes. This pretty coastal village became rooted in my heart when I was 7-8 years old. My father, a travelling salesman, had been promoted, and we left Caplan, until then our centre of the world. I remember it well. Stuffed into the backseat with my sisters, the three of us cried until our laps were wet with tears of fear of this "new faraway home.” Our brother had bombarded our eardrums with constant talk of it. That day the road seemed like it would never end. It followed the river’s edge all morning before veering off into the hills and small mountains of the Matapedia Valley. That was some 68 years ago. I am moved when I realize that I spent all day yesterday retracing that exact same route, in reverse.
I am on the road to BAIE-DES-CHALEURS! Did you know that the explorer Jacques Cartier named this place baye des chaleurs (bay of warmth) in the summer of 1534? Long before him, the Mi’kmaq called the place Maoi Pôgtapei, meaning “the big bay.” I push on, my head heavy with three quarters of a century of life experiences, including births and the death of my dear parents. Despite my many adventures in survival, I have always found time to travel down the river to my roots, my hometown, my country. I have learned three languages and yet the river still dulls my mind. I am frozen, transported back to an age when my memories were fresh and vivid, before fossilized by time. The sand between my toes, Aunt Hope’s wild roses, the little dried fish we chewed like caramels – all this and thousands of other little pleasures, each one a note in a harmonious symphony. See you soon, Sainte-Flavie, with our childhood games on the seashore, the sun-bleached mussel shells, the branches polished by the waves, the intoxicating smell of the ocean, the families of ducks, the great wharf…
After capturing hundreds of photos with my cell phone, I take Highway 132E up the hill of Mont-Joli in the direction of the famous Matapedia Valley. The first sight that greets me is an immense quilt of green hues. Nature always shows us more than what we grasp. Isn’t this precisely what entices explorers to leave safe shores? Isn’t it what sparks my creativity? Surely cavemen could have imagined a prehistoric bird carrying humans in its belly. The caveman brain simply needed time to develop. Isn’t all progress a question of time? Should we ask Henry Ford or Elon Musk? The car motors along.
SAINT-MOÏSE framed on a green sign says BONJOUR to me. Was there ever a real one? Are all the heavenly saints gathered in Quebec? And would the largest buildings be imposing churches? Today, they are often empty and sad as a light rain that neither wets nor leaves dries. A little further on, the church of Saybec taunts me with its slender bell tower that pierces a cloud. Who were the Christians who, in 1931, carried all those heavy stones to build the church? Did they earn their place in Heaven? Lightning struck two churches in Saybec: the old one in 1929 and then the new one on September 26, 1979. Only the rooster on the tip of the steeple was damaged, along with the church’s electrical system.
A little further on to my right, a provincial liquor store adjoins a small grocery store. What is there to say? A stop-off, two bags of groceries? Next, another small church protects a cemetery. Do the dead still need protecting in this part of the country? At noon, at the end of the valley, the radio announces that Joël Le Bigot, who hosts a Saturday radio show on current social and cultural affairs, is retiring. Sad news! What will become of my weekend morning? Can playful Mozart comfort me? Well, everything comes to an end eventually, both the good and the bad. At least the road I am travelling on is smooth enough and even freshly paved in some places. I recommend the route. Of course, the valley is less romantic than the seaside, but that’s how life goes: you can’t always be eating strawberry shortcake.
“No future for the F1,” says Radio-Canada. 18 million dollars of public money. What to spend it on: the health of the planet or the entertainment of the public? Tell me, could a grand tour of Gaspésie replace the grand F1 spectacle? I imagine thousands of Gaspesians throwing lilac branches at cyclists. I imagine the river swirling and swelling, eels holding their heads above the water to take everything in, parents promising bicycles to their children. Elected officials promising to improve the waterfront.
In Saint-Vianney, it looks like everyone has fallen asleep in the middle of the day. I don’t see anyone. No dog, no cat, no living soul. Further on, in Saint-René, the weather turns darker, the road caves. I feel small and vulnerable. I turn on the radio to hear that the corpses are piling up in France. It is inevitable. Has Mother Earth lit a great fire? We live in denial as if we were still in an earthly paradise. One expert says that the longer the heat wave persists, the greater the danger. Could this extreme heat be emanating from the cracks in the mantle of hell? Here in our country, Vancouver has been so hot that the elderly are almost frightened to death. I am terrified too. Maybe I should leave this world as soon as possible before I am completely incinerated.
I push hard on the pedal. I can’t wait to get out of the valley. On the right, a pretty covered bridge consoles me. The 132 keeps stretching in front of me, just like when our mothers used to make taffy for Ste. Catherine’s Day. Thank goodness I’m not a domestic goddess, just a morning cook. I roll on down the valley as if the Olympic flame were licking my backside. Going at a good clip, I finally arrive in Matapedia. I don’t stop and eventually arrive in Avignon RCM. I would like to visit Escuminac and some old Mi’kmaq sites, but the Mini goes straight through. I console myself by dreaming of a TOTEM just for me. I would pile up a dozen or so plates from the past years, each one unique and significant. And up there, at the top of the totem pole, my old age would be pecking at the sky to be let in.
In Carleton-sur-Mer, I look for a place to turn in along the seashore. I pull into the Manoir Belle Plage. A beautiful place filled with history books on early pioneers. I polish off a feast of fried fish at Dixie Lee and soon regret it: my stomach aches, my heart aches, my entire body aches. I’ve forgotten how to keep my digestive system happy. My stomach is bigger than my body; my head is empty and my legs weigh 100 pounds each. After an hour-long hot bath, I disappear under the luxurious comforter of my Manoir bed and fall sound asleep.
I dry up, shrinking until I am only a net of kelp caught between two pieces of dead wood. My sheets become liquid. Who am I but a lead ball, a swollen belly drifting out to sea, a strange void hoping for the dawn? My silent snoring ploughs through the foam of the open sea. In my flooded mind, a dream tries to surface. I am afraid. A giant wave strikes the blackness of the water. I grab onto a giant seaweed and wrap myself in it. I am warm, I am safe. Suddenly, a cavernous mouth opens and swallows me. What a nightmare!
Come back next week for more adventure!